Mai Kou Yang grew up in a Hmong enclave in the small town of Stevens Point, WI, where she and her family benefitted from many life-line services—including housing, employment and early childhood education—offered by a local nonprofit. Today, as a LISC AmeriCorps member, she is supporting her natal community, teaching digital literacy to Hmong families through the same organization that helped her. In celebration of AmeriCorps week, we are sharing Yang’s extraordinary story.
Mai Kou Yang is part of a large, close-knit extended family that has lived in rural central Wisconsin for more than 30 years. Her community is Hmong, an ethnic minority that traditionally practiced subsistence farming in mountainous areas of Southeast Asia. Like many Hmong in the U.S., Yang’s family arrived as refugees, fleeing their native Laos in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, landing first in a Thai refugee camp, then in St. Paul, MN, where Yang was born, and finally, by the late ‘80s, settling in Stevens Point, WI, population 26,000.
Growing up in Stevens Point, Yang recalls, there was one organization that consistently reached out to arriving Hmong families, helping to soften the shock of their dislocation. It’s called CAP Services. And now Yang has a chance to pay that forward.
This year, at 35, she is serving in a ten-month position at CAP Services made possible by Rural LISC and LISC AmeriCorps. She’ll be piloting a new component of CAP’s five-year-old family literacy program, Hmong UPLIFT, which helps Hmong children ages four to eight as well as their parents learn the skills they need to advance together. Yang’s project: to teach digital literacy to parents, cultivating the computer know-how that’s critical to following kids’ work in school, not to mention finding jobs, education, public benefits, and all kinds of 411. In the bargain, Yang will develop new skills of her own.
This arrangement reflects a strategic priority of both Rural LISC and the LISC AmeriCorps program—to strengthen lifeline rural organizations like CAP by tapping the talent and cultural competence of local people. It is also part of the LISC Rural Promise, a commitment to ensuring that 20 percent of LISC’s total impact is in rural parts of the country.
As part of the AmeriCorps national service network, each year LISC places 165 workers with its local partner organizations, including five to ten in rural places. Other AmeriCorps programs often recruit participants from around the country to serve in locations remote from their homes. LISC’s mission-driven approach purposefully recruits folks to serve in their own communities.
Nowhere is this more important than among the Hmong of Stevens Point, a small but established minority there (last year the town’s mayor proclaimed May 13-18 “Hmong Week”) with a unique cross-cultural legacy and set of needs. Not just anyone could helicopter into Stevens Point and do Yang’s job. “That’s her home,” says Justin Burch, senior program officer at Rural LISC. “To be able to build the capacity of an organization working with a historically marginalized rural refugee population, and to build it from within—that’s really exciting.”
Hmong families arrived in Stevens Point’s Portage County in three principal waves, during the mid-‘80s, the early ‘90s, and from 2004 to 2005, many going to work in the area’s fields or food processing plants—making tater tots, canning vegetables, and the like—or, in keeping with their agricultural heritage, growing produce and flowers they sold at the local farmers’ market. Many make a living in these ways today.
Yang’s family was among the first Hmong arrivals in this county dominated by farmland. Though her dad got work in a factory, her mother, responsible for six children, did not speak English and found little opportunity. “We were always low-income,” says Yang. They rented affordable housing from CAP. As a small child Yang attended CAP’s Head Start, where a Hmong-speaking teacher assistant helped make her comfortable. When Yang’s mom needed to see a doctor, she’d call CAP Services’ Jim Vang, a leader and early Hmong settler in Portage County, and he would make the appointment and go along to translate. When Yang’s family didn’t have enough to eat, her mom once again called “Jim” for a referral to a local food bank.
“I’ve known CAP Services my whole life,” says Yang. “You know, this is an all-white town, and we came in here as these minorities. And not just one family, there’s a bunch of us. If they weren’t here to help us I don’t know how my parents would have survived here in such a small town.”
As a second-generation American, Yang not only developed abiding ties to CAP, but also became an expert code-switcher—both great qualifications for her AmeriCorps position. She is fluent in Hmong, her native English subtly accented with the vowel sounds particular to the Upper Midwest. She knows most of the community’s Hmong families. And for more than a decade she’s put these assets to work as a paraprofessional in the Stevens Point school district’s English Language Learner (ELL) program, helping Hmong kids gain the power of literacy whether they speak only English, or speak Thai or Lao as well as Hmong and are learning English as a third language.
According to Erin Olson, CAP Services director of human development, one reason the non-profit wants to promote digital literacy among parents is that the school district increasingly uses Chromebooks, a shareable laptop device, for student work. Meanwhile CAP found an online curriculum for the digital-skills class, Learn to Earn, that focuses on workplace vocabulary and competencies. Says Olson, “This seemed like a really neat opportunity to help parents become more comfortable with technology, understand what their children are using and in particular access their online school records, while also preparing them to do a little bit better in the workforce.”
Yang began holding the classes in early 2020, gathering the small group of parents at a local YMCA on Friday afternoons. Language is a barrier, she says, so she goes through the material in both Hmong and English.
Rural LISC has supported CAP for years with capacity-building grants and investment in housing development. More recently, says Burch, LISC has also begun partnering with CAP on programming, bringing it into a collaborative on rural workforce development, Rural Works, where the organization can both share its own experience and learn from other efforts to position rural people for jobs that can sustain their families. As for the digital-skills class, says Olson, “the AmeriCorps position is really what gave us the capacity to move the project forward.”
In expensive coastal cities, it’s a challenge to recruit AmeriCorps members who might have a hard time making ends meet on the program’s modest stipend. In relatively isolated rural places like Portage County, the challenge is more often finding a host organization with the ability to provide required matching funds and tackle new work.
That’s another reason to recruit members locally, says Stacey Grant, who heads LISC AmeriCorps. Rather than contributing to the “brain drain” from rural places to cities, a home-based member like Yang can stay in her community, maintain her chosen lifestyle, and “deepen the bench” of the area’s non-profit sector.
Indeed Yang hopes to use the AmeriCorps program’s education award to go back to school and earn an undergraduate degree to teach ELL—in the same Stevens Point schools that she, her siblings, and her own three kids have attended.
“I’ve thought about leaving before,” says Yang, “but I just feel like this is the place for me. I’m not a big-city girl. And I feel like if I move then maybe some of our families won’t have the kind of opportunities that I could be giving them. If I leave, I’m taking all that with me. Stevens Point has my heart.”